"Pressure is something you feel when you don't know what you're doing." (Chuck Noll)
In January 1969, five months before my high school graduation, the Pittsburgh Steelers hired a young, unflappable coach named Chuck Noll to take the reins of a team whose history was distinguished mainly by 35 years of utter futility on the gridiron. During the course of that disastrous 1-13 season, the rookie coach made it clear to several of the team's veteran players that they simply weren't good enough to compete at the professional level. Noll even sat down with Steelers linebacker Andy Russell -- widely considered one of the team's best players at that time -- to tell him he didn't like the way he was playing his position. While Noll recognized No. 34's talent, he audaciously informed Russell that he intended to teach him techniques that would make him a better player.
Noll's ability to promptly analyze and address his team's needs via the NFL Draft began to bear fruit in the 1970 season when the Steelers’ record improved to 5-9, and the progress continued in 1971 when they posted a 6-8 record. By the end of the 1972 season, the Steelers were 11-3 divisional champs, narrowly losing to the undefeated Miami Dolphins 21-17 in the AFC Championship.
As they say, “The rest is history.” Pittsburgh dominated the 1970s, winning an unprecedented four NFL championships within the span of only six years. Within only a 3-year period, Noll had transformed a perennial NFL doormat into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
In their most recent three games with the Lions, Chargers and Bengals -- each one offering an opportunity to gain ground in the playoff race -- the 2021 Steelers have fallen flat. The 41-10 drubbing in Cincinnati was a convergence of every shortcoming Steelers Nation has fretted about since training camp. With six games remaining in the regular season, and the Steelers still not showing the slightest trace of resurgence, it's difficult to escape the conclusion this season will be a turning point for the organization.
The Pittsburgh Steelers team taking the field this season simply is not competitive. The franchise has reached a low point, the depths of which perhaps haven't been seen since the late 1960s. Considering Ben Roethlisberger's impending departure, finding another franchise QB is just one of many issues the organization needs to address. As they enter the stretch run of the season, instead of seeing their young players improving in preparation for the playoffs, the Steelers find themselves with even more serious personnel issues today than they had in Week 1.
That’s why two basic elements of Chuck Noll's monumental success take on new relevance. First and foremost, Noll possessed an excellent grasp of football strategy and a deep understanding of how to exploit opponents' weaknesses offensively or defensively. This ability to analyze the NFL as a whole and design a team from scratch that not only could compete but dominate was Coach Noll’s greatest accomplishment.
Secondly, Noll recognized that, without the requisite level of talent on Pittsburgh's roster, it would be impossible to implement his strategic plan. He wasted no time in culling deadwood from the team he inherited from his predecessor Bill Austin. Noll used the NFL Draft effectively, not only to find marquee players like Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, but also to sign lesser-known college players possessing the raw talent to be molded into Hall of Fame players. To name only a few notable examples, Donnie Shell was undrafted, John Stallworth was a fourth-round pick and 9-time Pro Bowler Mike Webster was a fifth-round pick.
Of course, plenty has changed in the NFL during the more than five decades years since Noll assembled his juggernaut teams. But to build an NFL champion today, the right combination of overall scheme and player talent is equally essential. Noll valued his players principally to the extent that they facilitated his grand design. He didn't care how talented a player might be; he expected them to conform to the requirements of his larger scheme.
Whenever Noll was caught on camera red-faced and hollering at one of his players on the sideline, it almost always was because that player had ignored Noll's guidance regarding how to play his position. Noll sometimes was described as a "my way or the highway" coach. He communicated very clearly what was expected and he would go to considerable lengths to explain the desired schemes and techniques. But he never tolerated carelessness in a player or repeated lapses of discipline.
The Steelers continue to be mostly successful with their higher-round draft picks, but legitimate questions persist about their ability to find players in the lower rounds who can develop into future stars or reliable backups. Of course, Coach Noll operated in an era prior to free agency when there was more time for players to grow into their roles. But these days, hypercritical fans and media often pass judgment on new players before they've accumulated very much experience.
Regardless of these important distinctions, the must-have elements for NFL success that Pittsburgh achieved in the 1970s haven't changed. Talent-wise and assuming the Steelers succeed in finding the right quarterback, their rebuilding process looks to be moving forward no matter how this season turns out. Talented youngsters such as Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Chase Claypool should form the nucleus of the Steelers offense for years to come.
But a larger question has persisted ever since the Steelers' Super Bowl loss to the Packers on February 6, 2011. That question is whether, 30 years after Noll's retirement, the Pittsburgh Steelers organization still knows what it's doing in terms of developing a winning, overall scheme. The NFL undoubtedly has changed but it’s still possible to specify and acquire the qualities necessary for a team to compete and win.
Currently, the Steelers appear stuck in the same vicious cycle as a number of other NFL teams who continue to draft talented athletes each year without ever reaching the top of the mountain. But Steelers history shows the solution to this conundrum begins with a complete, accurate vision of the kind of team the organization is trying to build — plus a firm commitment to making it happen. Any team can draft talented players but the true test is how well those players complement an effective strategic plan. This visionary aspect of coaching is the area where Charles Henry Noll had few peers.
Looking around today's parity NFL, the only teams implementing consistent, coherent strategic schemes are Tampa Bay (with Tom Brady filling a dual role as QB and OC), Green Bay (with similar contributions from Aaron Rodgers) and Bill Belichick's surprising New England Patriots. Nearly every other NFL team these days has been running hot or cold from week to week.
As for the Steelers, their 2021 season appears to be imploding. Ben Roethlisberger's hope for making his final NFL season memorable appears to have crashed and burned. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh now has a rare-if-undesirable opportunity to begin the task of making sweeping changes similar to those Chuck Noll made after his first year as head coach. Like Noll’s 1969 Steelers, Pittsburgh's current roster clearly includes too many players simply not good enough for a team with championship aspirations. Not only do these players need to go, but the Steelers must find replacements who can become more than temporary placeholders.
Obviously, Mike Tomlin and his team will try to win as many remaining games as possible. But given the increasing likelihood we’re watching a late-season collapse similar to the one last year, probably the best expectation is for December football to serve as an early, more intensive version of training camp/preseason. This approach surely won’t excite the Steelers’ fan base but it's a crucial step in the team's recovery process. And there's no time like the present to begin.
As Noll's quote suggests, the pressure being felt by Coach Tomlin and his staff today won't relent until we see some clear indications the Steelers have developed a master plan that’s working. Ever since Noll first put Pittsburgh on the NFL’s radar screen, the organization's mantra has been "The standard is the standard." Noll was the architect of that standard and the roadmap to success he created is perhaps his greatest legacy. The challenge today is to keep that standard alive.